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Leadership In Food Safety Management

by Andrew Thomson on June 16, 2020

COVID-19 has sharpened our focus on safety.

Lockdown provided an opportunity to reflect on current approaches and where improvements to compliance policies and practices could be achieved.

Some things have largely not changed on the safety front….like food safety management systems in Australia.

A one-size-fits-all approach to food safety management systems is widespread across the foodservice sector – a certain recipe for failure. 

All too familiar food safety problems persist at unacceptably high rates.

Leaders (at all levels) do not fully understand their food safety obligations, they are wanting a quick fix so they can tick the regulatory box.

Characteristically a leader within the organisation will copy and paste another organisation’s Food Safety Management System and make minimal change; or they will download a template to assist them develop in what they believe is a Food Safety Management System which meets compliance. This leader fills out a few text boxes here and there throughout the document which is done in isolation of operational employee consultation and involvement. The newly created Food Safety Management System completely lacks operational detail and bears no resemblance to site specific operational and food law requirements.

Issues around validating the System and developing robust verification mechanisms are poorly understood, and in many cases simply does not occur. 

Production processes impacting on food safety are not fully understood by operational leaders and employees, or there is inconsistent understanding of the processes. If leaders and employees do not know how the food safety system works (or is supposed to work), how can they improve it?

There are significant shortcomings around resources allocation including sub-par training – there is no genuine commitment to training, nor is there any accountability processes in place, this is just another example of ticking the box. Food handling employees need to know:

•            what to do;

•            how to do it;

•            why it’s important;

•            what corrective actions to take when required.

Corrective Action is a critical food safety step which helps prevent a food safety incident from occurring.

That dated ‘compliance-based training’ and ‘mandatory online modules’ approach and refresher training that everyone does has failed. New training and learning habits and practices will need to be created.

Implementation of the System and meaningful review rarely occurs. Your organisation must be able to demonstrate that it is complying with its Food Safety Management System and conduct a regular review – a requirement of Australian food law.

A review is of critical importance as food production activities within the operation will change over time such as when new equipment is purchased, or changes to the cooking methods.

It does require senior leadership involvement in the review, this provides an opportunity to examine business activity from a different perspective.

Soft or inconsistent regulatory audits are simply not helpful and places the organisation and other stakeholders at risk, including the regulator.

It is evident for these foodservice operations food safety management is not a priority or taken seriously. They rely on the ‘she’ll be right’ approach until there is a food safety incident or there is regulatory intervention. This can often lead to unwanted and negative (social) media attention.

Food safety colleague Dr Doug Powell says, When there is an outbreak of food-borne illness many food operations will rely on a go-to soundbite: “Food safety is our top priority.”

For Doug Powell, a former professor of food safety for seventeen years at universities of Guelph and Kansas State, this sets up a mental incongruity: if food safety is your top priority, shouldn’t you show me?

The other common soundbite is, “We meet all government standards.”

With a changing regulatory landscape, advances in technology and food products and ingredients travelling great distances it is time for the senior leadership and board of directors to elevate the food safety conversation within their organisation.

Far too many food service operations are leaving brand protection to government inspectors or auditors, this is a bad idea.

Organisational leaders should commit themselves to achieving best industry standards in food safety management instead of aiming to meet minimum requirements. Leaders must be actively involved in celebrating team success and equally the reporting and development of risk reduction strategies when a food safety issue arises. Leaders must hold every employee accountable for consistent adherence to recognised food law requirements and safety practices. Failing to respond to these matters leaves many organisations (and employees) vulnerable to a myriad of risks.

Footnote: Think ST Solutions is currently working with several food service organisations on new and innovative approaches to food safety management and employee training. Want to know more? Contact Andrew Thomson on 0422285720 or

Think ST Solutions helps protect and grows food businesses through innovation and risk reduction strategies.